AUGUSTA — You may think you know where your soul is going when you die, but what happens to your body is far less certain, especially if you die in Maine.
That’s why state Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, introduced legislation this week that would require those handling bodies and body parts, either for medical research or organ donation, to be registered with the state.
Maine law is lax when it comes to documenting what happens to a person’s remains after death, making the deceased and their families vulnerable to the possibility that final wishes won’t be carried out fully, or worse, that someone will make a profit from the sale or transfer of a body, body parts, tissue or organs.
Craven’s bill — LD 123 — requires those handling body parts, either for medical research or donation, to be registered with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The bill also requires more detailed documentation of which body parts go where, in an effort to ensure donors aren’t being disrespected in death.
“This would keep all of the person’s remaining parts together and create some kind of integrity, and people would be able to know who handled or managed the parts,” Craven said.
The legislation is modeled after a similar law on the books in New Jersey, Craven said.
The issue was brought to her attention by Dr. Conrad Wurtz, a retired psychologist and a board member for the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maine.
Wurtz said Wednesday that he was made aware of the issue by the Funeral Consumers Alliance national board. The national group alerted him to the fact that Maine did not have a very good system for tracking what happens to a person’s body parts after death.
“My understanding is there is a trafficking problem in the nation around the transfer of body parts from a person who has died to a laboratory or to a physician for transplant or something of that nature,” Wurtz said. “And that goes on without knowledge or approval of the next of kin of the person who died.”
Wurtz said the problem resembles a black market for body parts.
“That’s what it is, essentially, some parts have been removed without notification of next of kin and the person who removes them and sends them on to another without registration may be charging exorbitant fees for that,” Wurtz said.
The bill’s next stop is the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, of which Craven is the Senate chairwoman.
Craven said one of the primary goals is to make sure body parts that are used for research are not “scattered” and are kept together for final disposal.
The measure includes fines for those who violate the registration process or remove organs or other parts from a dead person without the proper documentation.
Craven said she’s heard some opposition to the measure from the New England Organ Bank. It is concerned that the bill, if it becomes law, would discourage people from becoming organ donors.
“They don’t want any more rules or regulations that are going to make people worry about whether to donate,” Craven said. “I thought, ‘Well, I would prefer to know that my body parts are taken care of properly, than not know.'”
Attempts to reach the organ bank’s Boston offices for comment were unsuccessful Wednesday.
John Martins, spokesman for Maine DHHS, said staffers were reviewing the bill but were not yet in a position to offer comment on whether it was needed.